For most of my life, and most of my career as a spiritual seeker, I had a classically Romantic notion of reason and emotion:
Reason was the primary driver and rightful ruler of behavior.
Emotions were messy, unpredictable side-effects of living in a body, the "primitive" leftovers of our mentality, which continually interfered with the smooth functioning of Reason.
Mental life was primarily the ongoing struggle between these two forces – Reason trying to direct and control, Emotions ready to run off the rails at any moment.
In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker inverts this model. Pinker asserts that the mind is an evolved mechanism, and as such any complex mechanism in the mind must have served a survival function. And that function is not the lowest of functions, but rather the highest.
Pinker posits that if you had a perfectly rational, sophisticated cognition machine without emotions (say, a robot, or Dr. Spock) and you set it lose in the world with no instructions, it would do . . . absolutely nothing. Intelligence has no use at all unless it has goals – it has to want something. It has to have a motive. And intelligence itself cannot generate the motive; it can figure out how to achieve a goal, but it can't figure out what goals to achieve. The highest-level goal has to come from somewhere else. And that's where the emotions come in. Pinker: "The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting."
So, rather than reason controlling emotion, it's exactly the other way around – emotions mobilize reason to fulfill goals. Every emotion we have is evolutionarily designed to meet some challenge in the world. Pinker spends most of the second half of the book deconstructing the design and survival value of every human emotion: fear, disgust, happiness, friendship, gratitude, sympathy, romantic love, guilt, grief, etc.
For now, though, just consider the ramifications of that simple formulation: emotions trigger responses that lead to action. It becomes a sort of mindfulness meditation: what emotion is motivating my thoughts and actions right now? If you want to change your behavior in some way (after, of course, considering the emotions that make you want to change your behavior) you will probably have to consciously manage your emotions – figure out what environmental cues trigger the emotions that generate the thoughts and behaviors that are manifesting in your life.
These ideas were not entirely new to me – I was always partial to Hume's formulation: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." But this was the first time that I heard a strong scientific case for that position. And rather than seeing the emotions as "primitive" or somehow undesirable, Pinker gives the emotions their due as sophisticated, engineered, essential aspects of cognition. It makes it that much easier for me to accept them and understand them for what they are.
I'm so glad you're back! I really miss seeing these on a daily basis.
I've always taken it as axiomatic that emotions provide the goals and reason the means, or at least that reason is incapable of providing goals. But I've also come to understand that it is much more complicated than I first realized. The example I always give us: suppose I am in a fight with Joyce. All my emotions toward her that I can sense or discern are anger, bitterness, etc. But if she needed my help, I would drop everything to be there. There is something much stronger than my current emotional state, something that underlies it, and I don't know what that something is, but it is not a "feeling" in the usual sense of the term.
First off, I think Pinker would agree that emotions can turn on a dime should circumstances change -- they are, after all, sophisticated mechanisms for organizing and directing behavior in the organism. (Our traditional metaphors for emotions would cast them as undifferentiated forces: "explosions" of anger, "crushing" despair, "swept up" in excitement, etc. But they are, I think much more discerning then the blind forces they are made out to be.)
There are lots of phenomena in our brains that seem to exist somewhere between discrete thoughts and palpable emotions. Ethical convictions, intellectual intuitions, etc. are "felt" in a certain way, but not like what we normally call "emotion".